Las Vegas Sun

November 12, 2018

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Retired Gen. Creech, ‘Father of the Thunderbirds,’ dies

As a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, Bill Creech knew there had to be a better way to fight an air war than flying low to the ground in broad daylight and risking being shot down by North Vietnamese small-arms fire.

Creech vowed that never again would an enemy of the United States "own the night" in combat and that his methods of flying far above ground fire, using sophisticated electronic striking and anti-jamming equipment, would prevail in future wars.

"No single officer has had greater influence on the Air Force in recent times than Gen. Bill Creech," Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said Tuesday. "He transformed the way the Air Force conducts warfare."

Retired four-star Gen. W. L. "Bill" Creech, who in the 1970s turned around the languishing Tactical Air Command and oversaw the development of much of today's modern air weaponry including the F-117 stealth fighter, died Tuesday at his Henderson home. He was 76.

Services with full military honors are pending at Arlington National Cemetery.

Creech, a former Thunderbird pilot of the 1950s, also was known as "The Father of the Thunderbirds" for rescuing the Air Force's Aerial Demonstration Team from a congressional chopping block after four of its pilots were killed on Jan. 18, 1982, near Indian Springs while on a training exercise.

After his 37-year military career, Creech became an internationally recognized authority on business management, promoting the same decentralization philosophy he used to restructure his Air Force command.

He also was author of the best-selling book "The Five Pillars of TQM: How to Make Total Quality Management Work For You," published in 1994.

Upon learning of the death of his former commander and longtime friend, Jumper, the Air Force's top-ranking general, flew to Henderson to assist Creech's wife of 34 years, Caroline Creech, with arrangements. He missed a Tuesday memorial service for Bob Hope to come to Southern Nevada.

"Bill's impact on many of today's military leaders was far and wide," said Jumper, who served as Creech's executive officer in 1983 and '84. "He taught us so many lessons of leadership and life. He had tremendous curiosity and a piercing intellect.

"He was a war hero of Korea and Vietnam who improved the tactics that have led to our successes in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq. Through his efforts, we have made great strides in electronic warfare and, in battle, we have won back the night."

Former two-term Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, a longtime friend, said America has lost one of its greatest military minds.

"I know of no American of my generation who has made a bigger or more important contribution to our nation," said O'Callaghan, who today is executive editor and chairman of the Sun. "He was a talented leader who, by example, taught others how to think and select future goals.

"Personal courage was to him just a way of life that didn't have to be taught or discussed."

Richard Dix, a retired local doctor and Air Force colonel, said he was fascinated by his longtime friend's great intellect and meticulous attention to detail.

"As a pilot, the General saw that flying low, fast and under the radar was not going to work because the North Vietnamese would hear the jets coming, lay on their backs and fire, hitting our planes," Dix said.

"He developed night-flying tactics because he said mere sounds at night are terrifying to the enemy and he developed tactics for flying above 15,000 feet -- tactics that led to victory in the Persian Gulf and Iraq."

Gen. Chuck Horner, who served as air commander during the Persian Golf War, has described as "monumental" Creech's development of tactics that resulted in just 14 of the 1,500 U.S. fighter planes in the Gulf War being lost.

In a book Horner co-wrote with Tom Clancy, "Every Man a Tiger," they call Creech, "a consummately skilled and precise fighter pilot ... as demanding on himself as he was on others."

It was as commander of the Tactical Air Command for 6 1/2 years in the 1970s and '80s, that the legend of Creech the venerable business leader began.

TAC, a sprawling command that at the time included 180,000 personnel in 46 states and five countries, had an 80 percent productivity improvement under Creech that resulted in savings of $12 billion to the government.

As head of TAC, Creech also oversaw the development of the A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, the F-15E night fighter, AWACS, AMRAAM, HARM and LANTIRN jets and the Stealth fighter that cannot be detected by radar.

After retiring from the Air Force, Creech moved to Henderson in 1985 and began his management advisory company, WLC Enterprises. Companies for which he was a consultant included General Electric, General Motors, IBM, ITT, Johnson & Johnson, Litton and Lockheed.

In his book, now published in eight languages, Creech said the five pillars of total quality management are organization, product, process, leadership and commitment.

Using 19 success and horror stories he had witnessed around the world, Creech showed how to supplement traditional management techniques with a decentralized, team-based approach that has since been implemented by companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Motorola.

Creech was a major proponent of the "human" factor in the business world that today that is dominated by computers and other modern technologies. He focused on bottom-to-top communication that emphasizes motivation and team concepts.

"If 90 percent of employees believe that productivity is in their best interest, productivity will rise," Creech told the Sun in a 1996 story. "It's time for us to pull out the old habits that were good at another time, but are no longer working."

Inc. magazine in its April 1989 issue, named Creech a member of its "Dream Team of the Decade," featuring six innovative U.S. business leaders. The magazine called Creech: "A tremendous motivator, leader (and) challenger of convention."

The magazine said his turnaround of TAC, "may be the most important U.S. military victory since MacArthur's Inchon landing."

But many Las Vegans and Nellis personnel perhaps will best remember Creech as the savior of the Thunderbirds. A Thunderbird pilot from 1953 to '54, Creech's photo hangs prominently on a wall of the VIP room in the Thunderbirds Museum at Nellis.

As a Thunderbird, Creech flew in 125 demonstration shows in the United States and Central America. A Thunderbird museum spokesman once called Creech "the father of the Thunderbirds."

Following the infamous accident when four Thunderbird pilots crashed after flying in a diamond formation, Creech went to bat for the unit before Congress and lobbied members of the executive branch.

He won in part because of a lengthy document Creech prepared giving specific details of the life of a Thunderbird pilot and methods for keeping them safe.

Creech long believed that the Thunderbirds inspired young people to join the Air Force, especially in times when recruitment was down.

While there were 36 major accidents that killed 24 Thunderbird pilots between 1953 and 1981, there have been no fatalities and only one minor accident since the 1982 tragedy -- a fact in which Creech took great pride.

Jumper said the Thunderbirds for many years invited Creech to address their new pilots, where he would share details of the unit's storied history.

Born March 30, 1927, in Argyle, Mo., Bill Creech was the youngest of three children of Paul Creech and the former Marie Maloney.

Creech graduated from Emmetsburg (Iowa) High School in 1944 and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from the University of Maryland and a masters degree in international relations from George Washington University.

He also graduated from the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C., in 1966.

Creech began his military career as a private in July 1944. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in September 1949 after graduating from flight training school.

During the Korean War Creech flew with the 51st Wing. In July 1951, Creech was assigned as flight commander at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., where he taught gunnery students from 14 nations.

In January 1956, Creech was named commander of the Air Force Europe Aerial Demonstration Team, the Skyblazers, based at Bitburg, Germany.

In June 1960, Creech came to Nellis Air Force Base as director of operations for the "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School.

After a stint at Langley Air Force Base, Va., in the mid-1960s, Creech served as deputy commander of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing in Vietnam.

As a combat pilot, Creech flew 280 missions -- 103 in Korea and 177 in Southeast Asia. He was decorated 39 times, including 22 awards for bravery in combat.

Among his honors were the Distinguished Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters.

Creech flew more than 40 types of aircraft including fighter, reconnaissance and cargo planes.

Creech was promoted to brigadier general in December 1971 and served command assignments in Germany, Spain, Ohio, Massachusets and Washington, D.C., where he was assistant vice chief of staff.

He also served as senior United States member on the Military Committee of the United Nations and as assistant to the Chief of Staff for Readiness and North Atlantic Treaty Organization matters.

In the mid-1970s, Creech was commander of the Electronic Systems Division near Boston, which developed sophisticated electronics equipment for the Department of Defense. The division each year procured more than $6 billion in high-tech electronic equipment, including AWACS and anti-jamming communications.

Creech was promoted to major general in October 1973 and lieutenant general in July 1975. He earned his fourth star on May 1, 1978. On that date, he also became commander of the Tactical Air Command at Langley.

As part of his developing management philosophy, Creech established realistic goals for TAC flight squadrons. Also, parts suppliers, training officers and aircraft maintenance workers were brought to the flight line and made part of a team. Rewards were given for surpassing goals and a pride in ownership was developed among airmen.

Creech maintained that Desert Storm ultimately proved that the decentralized management system in military operations worked.

Creech retired as TAC commander in September 1984 and soon after took the business world by storm with his decentralization philosophy.

Creech also became a key motivational speaker and served on several corporate boards, including the Chicago-based Centel Corp. He was the first Nevadan ever appointed to that major telephone company board.

Creech also served on the board of directors of Tech-Sym Corp., Transnational Industries, Inc., and Comarco Inc.

In addition to his wife, Creech is survived by a sister, Maxine Brody of Bigelow, Minn. He was preceded in death by a sister, Louise Voight.